Negotiations over the Greece/Macedonia/FYROM Name Dispute resumed in New York on May 24-25 following consultations in Washington by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias earlier in the week. The “Republic of Ilinden Macedonia” proposal that emerged last week after high-level consultations in Sofia appears to have faded into insignificance. In the tense political atmosphere in Athens which has clearly shifted to pre-election mode, the focus on the Name Dispute negotiations is now largely about how it factors into the multi-layered Greek electoral calculus.

Upcoming Greek elections set the tone

The optic of upcoming elections in Greece – which must be held by the fall of 2019, at the latest – now colours every dimension of the Name Dispute negotiations. The pressure to make progress before the summer EU and NATO summits was originally based on the understanding that the Greek political calendar would kick in sometime later in 2018 and make compromise nearly impossible, assuming elections are not held before their programmed time-frame.

With every day that passes, other factors, largely economic and social, increase the likelihood of elections coming sometime earlier than now planned, making a deal politically risky. Interestingly, the last rumour heard on the streets in Athens is that a deal on the Name Dispute now is viewed by some as helping to divide the widely favoured-to-win (in the next elections) New Democracy party. Accordingly, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras might theorize the benefits of an early deal still outweigh the votes he would certainly lose and a potential split in the current SYRIZA-Independent Greeks (ANEL) coalition. Clearly, a major gamble, provided conditions allow one to roll the dice.

State of play unclear

The New York encounter on May 24-25 between the usual negotiating group called together by UN Mediator Matthew Nimetz produced little news other than the arrangements for the next meeting (now set for Brussels). Macedonia/FYROM Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov joined Nikos Kotzias, his Greek counterpart. The discussions focused on the known outstanding issues and the list of names Nimetz presented earlier this year. Assessing the situation, Macedonia/FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said on May 24 “we are close to a solution,” in a televised debate with the country’s main opposition leader. Visiting Thessaloniki on May 25, Greek PM Tsipras said the talks were “crucial” and “sensitive.”

Perhaps reflecting the state of negotiations in New York, Tsipras made two statements in his Thessaloniki remarks which the New Democracy party immediately criticised. “For over 70 years, our northern neighbours have had a state entity both within the framework of the former Yugoslav federation and as an autonomous state, named “Macedonia.” They bear a name which, in the absence of any other kind of qualifier, references the ancient Greek world and the weighty cultural heritage of Greek Macedonia. This is what we are trying to get back. It isn’t easy” Tsipras said. He further explained “securing a qualifier in front of the name “Macedonia” would, therefore be a great victory.”

Washington interested in a solution but not pressing too hard

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias visited Washington on May 21-22 before heading to New York. Kotzias met with new US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as well as National Security Adviser (NSA) John Bolton. Discussions with both officials covered a wider range of issues than just the Name Dispute, with much time also invested in Greek-Turkish relations and the Cyprus dispute. The Americans were reportedly very interested in the progress of the Name Dispute negotiations but exerted little pressure, according to various Greek media reports.

We are left with a sense that the latest tango, leading up to the summer EU (June) and NATO (July) summits, may be primarily intended to keep alive hope for continued progress after the Sofia Tsipras-Zaev encounters and the Ilinden Republic meltdown. It is unclear whether the idea for a bilateral meeting in June of the two leaders at Prespes, on the border between the countries is alive at this point.